Aided by Adderall: Illicit Use of ADHD Medications by College Students

By Rolland, Amber D.; Smith, Patricia J. | Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council, Fall-Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

Aided by Adderall: Illicit Use of ADHD Medications by College Students


Rolland, Amber D., Smith, Patricia J., Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council


INTRODUCTION

"I don't know that many kids that have done coke, none that have tried crack, and only a few that have dropped acid. I can't even count all of the ones who've taken Adderall" (Stice). This statement made in an interview by a freshman art history major at the University of Maryland, College Park, in 2007 effectively highlights a still growing problem among undergraduate students in the United States: the nonmedical use of stimulant medications prescribed to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as "study aids." Even as early as 2004, up to twenty percent of college students had used Adderall or Ritalin, both drugs used to treat ADHD, according to a report released by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (Stice). This phenomenon of abusing prescription stimulant medications is well-documented not only in research literature but also in numerous news articles.

A 2009 NPR article documented the increasingly prevalent use of ADHD medications by college students to help them study and included commentary from Martha J. Farah, director at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, who described the behavior as "worrisome" due to the drugs' serious side effects and the potential for addiction (Trudeau). In 2012 The New York Times published just a small fraction of the submissions they received after inviting students to share personal accounts of taking prescription medications for academic purposes, and almost all of them were written by high school students or recent graduates (Schwartz). In 2016, CBS News published a story titled "Adderall misuse rising among young adults," making it clear that this problem has not lessened in the decade or so that has passed since publication of the 2007 article describing the growing trend of "young people taking prescription drug abuse to college" (Kraft; Stice).

Overwhelmingly the most common reasons given for the nonmedical use of ADHD medications involve academic studies as students use them to stay up all night to study (Arria, Caldeira et al. 162; Benson et al. 62; Garnier-Dykstra et al. 230; Cook 32; Herman et al. 15; Teter, McCabe, et al. 1501; Webb, Valasek, and North 30). This behavior has proved to be more prevalent among students attending colleges with the most competitive admission standards and academic environments (McCabe et al. 100; Webb, Valasek, and North 28). Additionally, certain dimensions of perfectionism are positively correlated with illicit use of prescription stimulants (Stoeber and Hotham 173). ADHD medication misuse has also been found to peak during periods of high academic stress, and students who engage in this behavior are significantly more likely to report higher levels of stress, test anxiety, and psychological distress as well as have more extensive histories of mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression (DeSantis, Webb, and Noar 317; Hanson et al. e62; Moore et al. 990; Burgard et al. 247; Bidwal et al. 538; Dussault and Weyandt 92; Thomas 10; Teter, Falone, et al. 294; Ford and Schroeder 32; Satder and Wiegel 221; Sattler, Mehlkop, et al. 14; Messer 16).

Students participating in honors programs and colleges are often held to higher academic standards due to rigorous admission criteria and the GPA requirements for retention, which can lead to increased levels of stress ("Basic Characteristics of a Fully Developed Honors Program"). The high standards might suggest that honors students and high-achieving students are at greater risk for abusing ADHD medications. However, research on the abuse of ADHD medications among honors and high-achieving students is lacking. Our study thus investigates the interplay between mental health issues (e.g., stress, anxiety and depression), prevalence of and motivation for illicit use of ADHD medications, and enrollment in a program with high academic performance expectations, including honors programs, residential colleges, and scholarships. …

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